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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Paging Walter Lippmann!

Matthew Yglesias comes to the defense of unfairly maligned paternalism:

One thing I would observe is that paternalism quite literally gets a bad name. The implication is that any observation that a given person may, if left to his own devices, fail to act in his own best long-term interests is somehow infantilizing. This, however, is silly. That perfectly normal adult human beings often fail to act in their own best long-term interests is clear and well known. Associating efforts to prevent such behavior with treating people like children is unfair. The point is simply that people tend to stay alive for quite a long time and the interests of you-now (i.e., the decision-maker) can quite easily diverge from the interests of you-in-two-decades even though you-in-two-decades is a person whose interests ought to count just as you-now's interests count. Beyond that simple divergence of interests, there are some systematic biases in decision-making that stem from the fact that human beings did not evolve so as to have a natural grasp of statistics and so forth. We all have an inbuilt tendency to completely neglect small chances, even if the consequences of those small chances are enormous.

Yglesias, it seems, believes in immaculate expertise--pure, disinterested know-how, uncorrupted by the private interests of the expert. Yes, the interests of "me-in-two-decades" may conflict with those of "me-now." But how are we to know that the expert won't confuse the interests of me-in-two-decades with those of, say, the-expert-now?

The "Progressive" ideology of the New Class at the turn of the Twentieth Century (and its British counterpart, Fabianism) was very big on the potential of disinterested expertise to solve society's problems. Exploitation resulted, not from an inherent conflict of class interest, but from a want of proper education. If everybody was properly educated and properly supervised by New Class social engineers, social conflict would come to an end and society would be run efficiently and harmoniously. The key to efficiency, for the New Class, was to remove as much of life as possible from the domain of "politics" (that is, interference by non-professionals) and to place it under the control of competent authorities.

Unfortunately, the New Class actually wound up, in practice, serving the interests of the ruling class. The corporate reorganization of the capitalist economy was brought about by the managerial New Class; the Taylorist deskilling of work processes, also, was made possible by New Class engineers.

In the realm of social welfare, health, and education, the New Class was likewise tempted to mistake its own interests for those of its wards. In every area of life, as Ivan Illich wrote (in Deschooling Society), the citizen/subject/resource was taught to "confuse process and substance."

Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.
As a corollary of this principle, the public was taught to "view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one's own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion."

In virtually every area of life, the average citizen was to be transformed from Jefferson's self-sufficient and resourceful yeoman into a client of some bureaucracy or other. The educational system was designed to render him a passive and easily managed recipient of the "services" of one institution after another. The schools, having trained him in an ethos of personal advancement by impressing the proper authority figures, having rendered him docile and fearful of making waves, and having taught him to line up on command and to eat and piss at the sound of a bell, in due time handed him off to the corporate Human Resources bureaucrats.

In all realms, the New Class wound up administering its human raw material, not (as professed) for its own good, but to "adjust" it to its role in the corporate state. As Christopher Lasch wrote of Jane Addams (in The New Radicalism in America),

The trouble was that Jane Addams was asking, in effect, that young people be adjusted to a social order which by her own admission was cynically indifferent to their welfare. She confronted a moral problem with a manipulative solution. Having laid bare the brutalizing effects of industrial labor, having made clear that the demands of the factory and the sweatshop and of the whole economic system of which they were the tangible expression were incompatible with the demands of human dignity, she proceeded to look for ways of reconciling people to their work Industrial society, according to Jane Addams, was a terrific engine of repression; yet her own efforts seemed often to have as their aim only to make its parts run more smoothly.

Although the early Progressives and Fabians had an ideological affinity for nationalization of industry and other forms of economic radicalism, their central passion was for planning and rationality. And most New Class intellectuals saw, in the end, the political impossiblity of expropriating capital. The large capitalists, in turn, recognized the value of the welfare and regulatory state for maintaining social stability and control, and for making possible the political extraction of profits in the name of egalitarian values. They saw paternalism as the best way to get the most out of workers in the long run. The result was the devil's bargain described by Hilaire Belloc in The Servile State and by William English Walling in Socialism As It Is: the New Class, its lust for regimentation and management satisfied, was coopted as a junior partner of the corporate plutocracy.

Thus, the main line of Progressivism developed into what New Left historians call "corporate liberalism." The themes of corporate liberalism, as David Noble described them in America by Design, were

cooperation rather than conflict, the natural harmony of interest between labor and capital, and effective management and administration as the means toward prosperity and general welfare.

While we're on the subject, I can't resist pointing out some uncomfortable facts about the later history of "disinterested expertise" in the twentieth century. Herbert Croly, the apostle of corporate liberalism, wrote The Promise of American Life as a manifesto of the messianic New Class. Croly was a key figure in organizing the National Civil Federation, a vehicle for enlightened capitalists to network with "moderate" government and labor leaders for the "common interest" of all. But most significantly, Croly founded The New Republic as an organ of "Progressive" opinion.

The New Class intellectuals at The New Republic, in cooperation with the similarly enlightened experts in the Wilson administration, in scientifically manipulating public opinion in order to manufacture consent for U.S. entry into the World War. The modern sciences of propaganda and "public relations" grew directly out of this effort by The New Republic and the Creel Commission to engineer public acquiescence to the policies of the ruling class.

Those who find themselves frustrated at the way the talking points of Karl Rove and Frank Luntz resonate throughout the corporate media, have the "disinterested experts" of the Progressive Era to thank. Those who, like Thomas Frank, object to the manufactured populism by which Main Street directs its resentment against phony "elites" like welfare moms and trial lawyers, should spare a kind thought for Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays, and all those other enlightened folks with their "natural grasp of statistics" and their better appreciation for the interests of "us-two-decades-from-now."

The problem with power is that it tends to corrupt. The power to coerce us "for our own good" usually winds up being used to benefit one person at the expense of others. And the temptation to mistake one's own interest for the welfare of others is well-nigh impossible to resist. That's why we avoid giving one person power over another unless, as in the case of children and the insane, there is virtually no alternative.


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